“You are reading my favorite author,” said the white-haired hospital volunteer leading me to my bone density x-ray. I was holding Louise Penny’s latest mystery: Kingdom of the Blind.
Then we shared a knowing smile and spoke simultaneously: “You have to read them in order.” We both knew that Penny would incapacitate, even kill off, not just people we liked but also people who have been characters over several books. She is fearless.
In Kingdom of the Blind, Armand Gamache, the Head of the Surete for Quebec Province, needs to track down a hoard of carfentanil, a drug one hundred times more potent than fentanyl. He is also dealing with his superiors and provincial politicians who want to make him a scapegoat for the drug epidemic.
Gamache is late middle-aged with a wife and grown children. He has close friends at work and in his civilian life, but Gamache never demands loyalty from family, workers or friends. He knows that each human heart is driven by unique circumstance.
He is a risk-taker. He is willing to sacrifice his reputation, his job, even his life to defeat evil. He will promote a low-ranked misfit into police leadership if he believes in that person’s character. He trusts his subordinates to keep secrets and execute strategic plans.
Louise Penny takes risks as well. She writes like she can see into people’s souls. And you absolutely believe her. Gamache believes that telling a victim’s relatives that someone is dead is akin to murdering the loved ones too. “And then, as he spoke the fateful words, their faces changed. And he watched their world collapse. Pinning them under the rubble. Crushed under a grief so profound most never emerged. And those who did come out dazed into a world forever changed. The person they were before his arrival was dead. Gone.”
Another passage: “Clara had painted the demented old poet as the aging Virgin Mary. Forgotten. Embittered. A clawlike hand gripped a ragged blue shawl at her neck…. But. But. There. In her eyes. Was a glint, a gleam. With all the brushstrokes. All the detail. All the color, the painting, finally came down to one tiny dot…. In a bitter old woman’s near-blind eyes, Clara Morrow had painted hope.”
Penny evokes a visceral response in conveying the wisdom and great heart of Gamache and the soul-changing possibilities of art, all in just a few words.
I come to reading murder mysteries honestly. One of my mother’s favorite TV shows in the 1950s was a series called “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Ronald Howard, Leslie Howard’s son. But she was familiar with this character even before the TV show, even before she came to America from China. She had a Chinese name for him: Faw-er-mos, a Shanghainese pronunciation of Holmes.
I read “The Speckled Band” by Arthur Conan Doyle my freshman year in high school. That same year a family friend gave me a hardback book of works by Edgar Allan Poe. I had recently read a Poe story in English class – “The Cask of Amantillado.” But Auguste Dupin, who solved “The Murders on the Rue Morgue,” was a real detective. And the idea of hiding something in plain sight, as in the “Purloined Letter,” thrilled me with the genius of it. I knew then that murder mysteries were for me.
I suspect that my choice of which books to read had to do with availability and my stage of life. In high school, I devoured all of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. A bit later, I discovered Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. These characters were thinkers, using “those little gray cells,” as Hercule called his brain, to solve crimes. This was the time in my life when I was learning to think and solve problems.
I discovered Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn at Washington University’s Olin Library. My horizons expanded in college through my classes, but also through the students and professors I met, the speakers and events I attended and because “the times, they were a-changin’” in the late 1960s. The mystery books widened my knowledge of the world as well, some of it pretty esoteric, like facts about church-bell change ringing in The Nine Tailors, by Sayers.
A good friend in college introduced me to Janwillem van de Wetering and his Zen and jazz-minded Amsterdam detectives de Gier and Grijpstra and their boss, the commissaris. And because my friend lived in New York State, I started reading Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Nero’s general factotum Archie Goodwin would often go to places that my friend and I went to when I visited: the towns of New Paltz and Rhinebeck and the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River.
After college, I went to Hong Kong with my first husband who was doing research for his history PhD. The center where we foreign students gathered had a pile of books that others had left behind. Someone had dumped a bunch of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels. Travis lived on a boat called the Busted Flush in Fort Lauderdale. He was adventurous, gallant and ruggedly handsome. Who knew my second husband would be from Miami and is adventurous, gallant and handsome?
On returning to America, I decided to strike out on my own and to go to medical school. It was the time when many women burst into the workplace, including female private eyes: Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone; Sara Paretsky’s V.I Warshawski and Linda Barnes’ Carlotta Carlyle, a six-foot-one, red-headed Boston cabbie. Maybe it was my med school schedule, but it always felt like these gals needed more sleep. And it seemed pretty clear that I would become an internist – the doctors who, like detectives, put together symptoms, physical findings and lab and scanning results to come up with a diagnosis.
Did reading all those murder mysteries help me be a better doctor? That claim would be unfair to either expert diagnosticians or to clever mystery writers. I just have the kind of mind that enjoys building a coherent story out of available information. For example, rash + summer time + joint pain make me think of Lyme’s disease. Shortness of breath + swollen ankles + fatigue point to congestive heart failure.
During my mid-life years, I read mysteries to get respite from the challenges of work and child raising. The Tony Hillerman Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee Navajo series transported me to the red mesas and desert of the Southwest. Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco, starting with The Silver Pigs, took me to ancient Rome. Falco had a great sense of humor and had an easy repartee with Helena, a senator’s daughter. Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters and Sister Fidelma by Peter Tremayne solved murders as members of medieval religious orders. Colin Dexter’s Morse tackled murders in modern day Oxford, England.
About ten years ago, my parents became debilitated. We took care of them in our home for about three years. During the stress of that situation, one series that grabbed my attention was Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series with Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo. I was so hooked that, one day, as I was taking Mom to Mass, I resurrected an old high school trick. I turned the book jacket inside out so you couldn’t see the cover and read it in church. Mea culpa.
Today, husband Bill brings mystery series into the house: Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Ian Rankin’s Rebus of the Edinburgh’s police; Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta; and Norwegian Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole. A bit hard-boiled, but I read them.
I have flirted with many other mystery writers: Dick Francis; Alexander McColl Smith (I love that Mma, as in Mma Ramotswe, is also how I called my Mom in Shanghainese.); Qiu Xiaolong; Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling); and Ann Cleeves, among others. I recommend some wonderful one-offs: Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red.
My two favorite series right now are Donna Leon’s Venetian cop Guido Brunetti (See my review of her latest book The Temptation of Forgiveness in my September 2018 blogpost) and Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache.
In looking back over the scores of mysteries series I’ve enjoyed over the past half century, I realize that I was witness to thousands, probably tens of thousands, of violent deaths. Oh, my! I wonder if I shouldn’t have gone into pathology.
Tell me: what series should I read next?